In Conversation: Chris Perren

In Conversation: Chris Perren

On finding your obsession, managing your time and discovering math-rock. 

Chris Perren
Brisbane, Australia

In Conversation: Chris Perren

On finding your obsession, managing your time and discovering math-rock. 

You’ve written a new work for the Rosa Guitar Trio to be premiered at the upcoming Dots+Loops Festival. Can you tell me about the piece and what the rehearsal process has looked like?

Well, it's called "ouendan" and it's an audiovisual piece - which basically means I have edited the video and composed the music together, and they synchronise and complement each other. It's named after a form of Japanese cheerleading which is very old and traditional, and has very sharp movements. I've used some footage of ouendan performers, and cut it up and looped it and messed with it to create the video.

Synchronising live music with a video is always kind of tricky, because they need to play along to a click, but the click has to be kind of secret, so there's headphones and such involved in keeping everyone in time. But Rosa are real pros, so we've really had no issues pulling it together. They've really helped me to develop the work, and have been extremely open minded and generous with their time and skills. The only unfortunate part is that they don't really get to watch the video while they play!

How did the piece unfold before you met with the performers? What does your writing process look like?  

Writing audiovisual pieces is something I've been doing for about 5 years now, usually the two main things I'm trying to explore are: 1) what rhythmic information can be contained in the motion of a short clip of video, and 2) what complexities can arise from looping and layering short sections, and allowing them to drift out of alignment.

So the process generally starts with me trawling the internet, rummaging through my collection of odd VHS tapes, or capturing new footage to try and find something that has the kind of motion I'm looking for. Once that is found, I mess around with different combinations and see what starts to pop out for me, and that's usually what I'll develop further. Most of what I make in the early stages goes in the bin! I'm really interested in the idea of emergence - what unexpected surprises get thrown up by the process itself.

The most tedious part is something called rotoscoping, which involves editing the footage frame-by-frame to isolate a single element. It takes forever, but it's often necessary for the kind of techniques I like to use. So it's kind of handy that I only ever use very short cuts of footage!

If it's for live musicians I'll usually spend a fair bit of time varying and refining the parts to make sure they're fun and interesting to play. I like to try and make sure that it would stand up as a piece with or without the video.

What are your go-to writing tools when you start off work on a new commission? Do you prefer pen and manuscript or notation software, or does it differ from work to work?

I am a big believer in the fact that different tools bring out different musical ideas, so I make a conscious effort to use everything - notation or diagrams on paper, instruments, recording and sequencing software, notation software, drum machines, loop pedals, tape machines... And I move around between them a fair bit. For example, if I create an idea in Logic or Sibelius, I'll try and learn to play it on guitar or piano, and see what different ideas jump out from operating in a different mode.

For the audiovisual pieces though, I usually have Apple Motion or Final Cut and Logic Pro open simulataneously, and am usually bouncing back and forth between the two. And in writing for Rosa trio, I had the guitar out quite a lot - it's my main instrument so it's nice to be able to try things out on it.

You’re an artist, a music-maker and an organiser, and your day-to-day covers a whole heap of different activities, from composition and teaching to creating music events and pop music. How do you find time for all of your creative pursuits and does each practice help feed and inspire the others?

Managing my time is definitely the biggest challenge I face! I have a two year-old, so since becoming a parent, juggling multiple projects has become a lot harder. I've definitely had to trim down my activities. I try to be aware of not becoming a perpetually busy person with little to talk about except how busy I am... so for the sake of my health and my family and friends, I try to always keep a bit of downtime and not take it all too seriously. It helps that composing is a pretty relaxing state for me, so that also feels like downtime sometimes.

They all do tend to feed into each other, I'm really enriched and inspired by being with my family, and I'm lucky to have a job at UQ where I can be part of a musical/academic community where interesting things are always going on. 

You also play in a math-rock band, Mr. Maps. What’s math-rock all about?!  

Nominally I am, though we haven't played a show in nearly 2 years. Math-rock is a very interesting genre which I was obsessed with for most of my 20s. It's sprung from post-rock, but has a bit of a focus on rhythmic intricacy. The bands TTNG (formerly This Town Needs Guns) and Toe are good starting places for the uninitiated. I heard it described once as "prog rock with unpaid student loans" - which feels right to me. We had a lot of fun in Mr. Maps, and I feel like I learnt a lot about music from playing with those people. I think the kind of music that comes out of 5 people playing in a room together with no notation of any kind is just so different from what comes out of one composer pinning down a bunch of notes for someone else to play. 

Any words of advice for young composers hoping to work in the new music/contemporary classical sphere?

Follow what fascinates you and don't be ashamed of your obsessions, no matter how unhip they are. 

Don't lose sight of the people aspect - make friendships, not just networks, and remember to write parts for musicians, not for instruments.

Don't take yourself too seriously.

The Dots+Loops Festival opens on the 8th September at Brisbane's Cupo in Fortitude Valley. Tickets and more information here